My daughter insists that purple is my favorite color, which is why she got me a very large lavender candle for Mother’s Day. While purple is lovely, I am quite allergic to lavender. This is why I avoid purple foods (and candles), most of which, until recently, were purple due to the sleepy-time personal poison that is lavender. But now, everything purple is uber ube, and I’m all for it.
What is ube and where did it come from?
Ube is a tuber, similar to the orange sweet potato (or the yam, if you prefer) and is traditionally used in Filipino and other Asian dishes. Real Simple says it is not the same thing as a purple sweet potato, which is its own thing; ube is sweeter than a regular sweet potato that you’d put marshmallows on at Thanksgiving.
Sweet potato is an easy way to add depth and texture to baked goods. By cooking and mashing it and then mixing it into batter, you can create moist cakes, pancakes, and other baked goods. Ube can create a similar product, as well as a custard- or jam-like texture if cooked with sugar, coconut, or milk products.
The orange hue you get from sweet potato is one of those normal, natural-looking food colors we’re all accustomed to, so the shock of bright purple offered by ube is very welcome—surely one reason behind its recent success. This Food Network article from January 2017 cites several examples of ube’s explosion across social media, and Filipino news outlet Spot noted the international spread of ube in August 2016, so it’s a pretty recent addition to the zeitgeist.
While the tuber has traditionally been used in desserts, it rose to prominence at the peak of Instagram’s food porn phase right around when the Filipino restaurant Manila Social Club in Brooklyn introduced beautiful ube doughnuts. While the original restaurant is gone, the ube is still going strong all these years later, suggesting the appeal of this flavor (and color!) is more than just a trend.
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Where can I buy ube?
I got a raw ube, though now I’m worried it was a purple sweet potato, at my natural grocery store. I wasn’t totally sure of the best usage. I think cooking and mashing it into pancakes might have been a better choice than what I did, which was put some cubes of it onto a veggie kebab with purple onion, zucchini, and peppers, hoping my kids might be intrigued by the colors and try it (they declined). The taste was mild enough to be called bland, but this might have been user error.
If you want ube products, you head to Trader Joe’s, of course, a place that’s always up for global flavor experimentation. The four TJ’s nearest me had both the ube spread and ube ice cream in stock. At one time there were other products, but a representative told me on the phone they weren’t carrying those regularly anymore.
For the sake of science, I tried the spread and the ice cream and forced two friends to test as well. My dog also ended up trying a small amount of the spread, but this is not recommended.
Trader Joe’s Ube Spread
According to this post on Kawaling Pinoy, a website for Filipino and Asian recipes, Halayang-Ube is “a classic Filipino delicacy made of purple yam, coconut milk, and butter.” Described as a type of jam, halayang-ube does seem to be a similar vibe to this TJ’s spread. However, photos of halayang-ube show a more solid product, like flan, not a spread.
Also, unlike Joe’s product, the original ube recipes retain their purple hue without any added coloring. Both the Trader Joe’s ice cream and spread have added vegetable coloring to amp up the purple hue. The spread’s ingredient label just says “vegetable juice,” while the ice cream cops to using grapes and beets to enhance its color.
A Google image search of actual ube shows a spud that’s plenty purple, so I don’t know why TJ’s felt the need to add in beets. The purple hue of the ube spread is indeed a bit redder than its namesake yam, which is a more indigo shade. The addition is baffling, as is the overall saccharine taste of the spread. The addition of sugar takes away any flavor inherent to the tuber and replaces it with the flavor of, well, sugar, and not much else. The spread isn’t particularly coconutty or complex in any way.
Halaya is eaten on its own with cheese, but the TJ’s spread has a note on the side that says it’s good on pancakes or ice cream, so I made plain pancakes and put some of this stuff on top instead of syrup.
Two out of three humans liked the spread less and less the more we ate. The third human said it grew on her. We all think it mostly tasted like condensed milk and needed more coconut. The dog got a hold of an abandoned pancake and enjoyed it equally to all pancakes, which is to say immensely.
Trader Joe’s Ube Ice Cream
The ube ice cream has been around for a while and continues to be popular among TJ devotees. It tastes like sweet cream and not at all like sweet potato. One of my friends said she feels like a fancy restaurant would serve it as their take on a plain ice cream. The color is exciting, of course.
I’d put the ice cream in front of a kid and see if the purple made them happy. I’d also put it in a smoothie or sundae to spice it up a bit. I’d love to hear from people who are crazy about it what exactly makes them feel so passionate because to me, it’s more vanilla than vanilla.
Is ube an uberfood?
Yams stop menopause, right? That’s what we learned from the atrocity that is Sex and the City 2. And sweet potatoes and yams are in that superfood category, so are ube in that category, too?
Yes, ube is good for you, full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. I don’t know about the menopause thing. And, like purple berries, purple ube have antioxidants that help you be less full of swelling or diseases or something. They make you feel great! Most importantly, if you like this food, it’s good for you, so go for it.
The tricky part is when you get into the health benefits of all these ube products. Most of the ube products and things you can make with ube are sweet and have added sugar. I’m not here to tell you not to eat sugar or dessert or anything, but when you look at the nutrition labels for the Trader Joe’s products you’ll see there’s not much there there. The spread has no vitamins to speak of and not much fiber. It’s not better in any way than the jam you already eat—unless, of course, you happen to prefer it. Same goes for the ice cream.
So, if you like the flavor profile of ube and ube products, enjoy it. If you are drawn to it purely for its status as a superfood, fine, but you’re not actually getting anything out of it. If you like it for its pretty purple color, then, yes, my lovely, you will be getting a good return on your investment.